Justin Townsend is an international lighting and set designer for performance. He has been nominated for the 2016 Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards for Broadway productions “The Humans” and “American Psycho”. He holds a MFA from URTA member university, CalArts. Mr. Townsend is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Brooklyn College. He spoke recently with URTA Education Manager Rachel Friedman.
Let’s start at the beginning of your career. Can we talk about your journey from UMass Amherst to deciding to attend graduate school?
I had no idea what I was doing, going into [undergrad] school. Then I found a mentor and ally in [UMass Professor] Penny Remsen and a great bubble of theatre makers: David Korins, Ben Stanton, Jane Cox, Traci Klainer, and Matthew Richards, all came out of this same window of [time]. I don’t know if I was necessarily a great designer then but I was hungry, excited, and interested. I did a “victory lap”, as I call it, my 5th year at school, and then I moved to New York to ‘begin’, not really knowing what beginning meant.
I lived with some other teammates from UMass. And then I just tried to work and meet people. I couldn’t get work as a lighting designer at first so I was a sound designer. Whatever it took to meet directors and be in the room. So I started doing some design, I worked for a school–American Academy of Dramatic Arts–and did some Off-Broadway work, some Off-Off Broadway work. But I found that I was trying to hustle a business. And I found that when I was pushing a business I ended up not meeting people who I admired and not making work I was interested in. I started working as an assistant set designer to Doug Stein and with this crazy new technology called 3D rendering. He introduced me to Chris Akerlind. I was able to assist both of them on a production of King John at the old American Place Theatre before Roundabout owned it, and I saw something I’d never seen before. These were artists talking to each other through their medium, not through conversation or dramaturgy. I assisted Chris Akerlind on two shows there and I kept asking him about CalArts, because that’s where he was teaching. At the end of it I said, “Well I’d like to come to CalArts.” And he said, “Well you’re accepted.”
And so it was the spring, and I moved to California that fall and started studying theatre at CalArts. My interest has always been on dramaturgy as well as design, and I think those professors, Harley Erdman specifically, working with real playmaking and play construction technique—that was really exciting for me, and also to study as a dramaturg at CalArts. I studied set and lighting design at CalArts, and also, “the craft of playmaking”. As designers, we made our own pieces and theatre-work. Then I came back here to New York. Came running back east as soon as I could when I was done.
You’ve obviously achieved a lot of success in lighting design, and you’ve worked as a set designer—there was even a show where you worked on both. Can you talk about those two areas and how your focus played out?
I’m a much better lighting designer than set designer. I love to work with great set designers and I love to collaborate with people. So I’m happy to do set design but what I like most about lighting design is surprising the audience and the whole team with how we can make spaces come to life. Frequently it’s tough to surprise yourself. So typically my set designs tend to be based on the incorporation of using light as object and making a structure or a space so that the whole object breathes with light. Janis Joplin on Broadway was a space using Darrel Maloney’s projection but also the entire light sculpture that came to life around her. That was really exciting. I think to that end, studying as a dramaturg really was about reading a lot of plays and talking to a lot of playmakers and playwrights. My interest in that still continues; I work with the Great Plains Theatre Conference and I go out every year just to be a designer at a playwriting conference. Not to instruct playwrights, not to say “Oh, that’s going to be too hard”, but rather to say “How do we break bread together and recognize that the writing and the production are hand in hand?” Typically the American theatre process has weeks and weeks of workshops, and then this whole other creative team is invited into the process. It’s not so much to guide and shepherd the process but to remind all of us what are we working towards and what’s exciting. So I think in that dramaturgical way: How do we make these things? How do make these plays sing? How do we make these plays breathe?
Something that struck me about the lighting design in The Humans is that it’s part of the plot. There’s light that is directly in the plot, which you don’t always see in a play. I wondered at what point you were you brought in? Was that a conversation with Stephen Karam? How much of the design elements were written into the script?
It was made in Chicago before I saw it. And so David Zinn and Joe Mantello started the piece here in New York and I joined them along with Fitz [Patton] in the sound, and you know, the script simply says “the lights go out”. So the challenge, or the hope, is that we made a world—or I designed a world that, at the end of the play, is inevitable from what we see in the beginning. So the darkness doesn’t come out of nowhere, but this seems like a world where the lights can go out. So in some ways it’s my job to reverse engineer how this can function. The playwright has called the problem: Bang! The lights go out. But then myself as a designer, I have to figure out how does that make sense?
There’s a function of believability, and I think what’s so exciting about The Humans is that it sort of pushes the needle one tic on our conversation about what realism is. Because in some ways it’s really realistic theatre. And in some ways it’s a ghost story. So how do both happen, and us not feel like we’re in a kooky crazy world? In a realism world the light would hold still, and yet it’s frustrating when the actors all play stage right and stage left is still too bright. So you dim it down a little bit, but then it’s confusing because why would the light move, in a really realistic world? So tuning that, but then also creating this world where the fiction of being left alone with only a lantern in the dark with your fears. What does that mean? How does that become inevitable? So it’s about understanding the play within that. And that’s exciting to me.
It’s really interesting listening you talk about this ghost story versus hyper realism. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about when you get a brand new piece, what’s your process?
As a lighting designer, I come in listening. And I come in listening a little harder because I tend to find that the director and the set designer have already spoken before I’ve been in the room. So there’s already a vocabulary and an understanding of the rhythm of the piece. I feel like it’s my job to join the party and accelerate it, instead of saying “Whoa, guys, you’ve got it all wrong, what have you done!” I’m interested in hearing and echoing back what they’re saying and also pointing at places in the play that maybe are helping that, or how light might support or contradict that. Good theatre isn’t necessarily everything getting along onstage, both in design and in personalities. A lot of my work is done in the room during tech, so I’m wary of too much conversation. I’m more interested in the “What we’re interested in now” conversations, what we’re finding in the play, what’s intriguing to us, rather than “I think this is a side light and it’s pale blue” kind of piece. I’ll use a lot of cinematic language too like, “how does the play move?” I’m really interested in the structure or arc of the piece. Does this have a typical western journey of acceleration and then denouement? Where is the struggle? Do the lights help that? Sometimes throwing all of that out and just thinking of the
space as sculpture. How can the space be deconstructed, illuminated, how can I apply language that feels appropriate to the play and surprising to the structure of the space?
Do you have a different approach as a set designer? Do you find the two design areas are completely different for you in the process?
Well, I think they both stem from listening, but the question is what I’m listening to. As a lighting designer, I’m listening to a process that’s already begun, and I think as a set designer what I’m really trying to do is listen to the director, but also listen to the text, and listen to the actors, and how the play moves. So I’m really interested in—is this an idea of compression that starts to make the play more exciting, or is this something where the ceiling is completely low? What is the material? Or hook into something that intuitively feels right, and begin from there, as opposed to knowing the answers.
Interesting. Well we are at Brooklyn College and I would be remiss not to ask you about your role as an educator. You’ve taught at Northeastern, Long Island University, and you’ve teach here. Can you talk about how your role as an educator and your role as a professional designer intersect and parallel?
I’ve studied with professors who’ve had a professional career and my big learning moments came through their integration of their professional career and their classroom experience. There is a model of education that purports to this sort of ‘ivory tower’ and I’m very interested—especially in the theatrical world—of how we start to make the university and its walls a thin membrane, so that there’s coming and going with the professional landscape. What I’m trying to do is create a landscape and a classroom that, instead of saying “I know best, sit down and listen to me,” is to say “We are colleagues, we have different things to share.” So certainly, I can tell you how to draw the section of a sidelight but how do we start to talk about what is good playmaking? Shouldn’t we all come to the table with open hearts and really challenge ourselves to figure out what do we want to hear now? What do we need to see now? I think there’s a temptation in my career to sort of know what works. And then with a new generation of students coming in every season there’s a re-invigoration of this conversation of, what do we actually want to see on stage? What do we want? I’ve found, certainly in myself as a student, there’s a part of it like “Whoa, what is theatre? What can we do?” For example, right now my students are looking at Vietgone, which is happening right now at Manhattan Theatre Club. So sure, we’ll study an older play to talk about the structure of that play, but I’m really interested, especially in the environment of the world right now, how do young, early career designers start to engage with new plays and new playwrights, where they don’t know what the answers are? I worry when education becomes a sort of “Check the box. This is the answer” and what theatre does well is this idea of “We don’t know. You have to make this up entirely. Show us how.” That’s been a big part of my journey as an educator—linking my exterior work to the classroom work, but then also bringing some of the classroom energy into my own personal work.
With Vietgone are the students coming to you and talking about your work?
Yeah, they’re reading the play, we’re using Tim Mackabee’s set to study how light works, and then we’re going to see the play, and see how they might light the space. So yes, we are doing theoretical projects where they’re their own leader, but this is a project where they’re actually able to engage in conversations that are happening right now about class, identity, race. Not like “Oh three years ago when we did this play…” but to say “This is happening right now.” So that when they start their personal careers they already have language about what is happening right now and about what they think, and why.
I also saw Vietgone not long ago and what was really interesting to me is Vietgone and The Humans are very different. They’re very different in style, in design, and one of the things about Vietgone that really struck me was how the lighting and projection design played such a huge role in the moving forward of this new work. They’re both about family, and in that way they’re similar. But they’re so different in all these other areas.
I think that’s the joy about working as a designer in the theatre. I get to do 10 or 20 productions a season and really engage with these plays, and these conversations about what we’re interested in, what we want to see, and what that allows is a chance to experiment with style and what I’m interested in. So I can’t just say “Oh I’m only interested in clear lights.” Of course that’s a beautiful thing, I’m very interested in clear light, but I can also start to expand upon “What does comic book style mean to a play? How do we start to explore that? How do we cue that? What does cuing mean in that idea?” They’re very, I hope, rooted in our humanity, in our experiences, but at the same time experiences and styles that we get to surprise and help engage the audience with.
You just spoke about liking different kinds of things and versatility of the work. How do you select new projects? If you do so many in a year what is the process of finding new projects?
I’m most interested in plays that people don’t know how to do. My favorite is when people are like “We don’t really know how this works but we’re interested in your voice Justin, can you come?” I think it’s funny because I think my voice is one of listening. I think what’s really important to me in making new work, is listening harder. I think a lot about the SITI Company. I spent a month in Saratoga with them and I think a lot about improvisation and their relationship to Viewpoints. When training in Viewpoints, a focus is on both listening and acting at the same time. As soon as you are just listening, which is fine to do, you’re not participating in the growth of the piece. Certainly different extremes could happen the whole process, one could listen the whole process and then only act at the end. I don’t know or suggest to know there is a right proportion of that, but it’s like a basketball team. Everyone has different strengths and we play to those strengths. And I am like that very much as a maker. That we get to bring that through listening.
I also wanted to ask you about The Luce or ‘light organ’ you created.
A very exciting piece. Anna Gawboy reached out to me from her master’s work at Yale. [Alexander] Scriabin more than 100 years ago had this great idea about how we perceive music and how we perceive light. So he wrote all of this music and he also wrote a line to go with his music that was to be played to color. He said, “If you do this correctly it will be the end of the world.” There were lightning bolts and fireballs and purples and reds and so forth. Anna and I combined her thinking with music and my thinking with light and we created an instrument that could play the colors of light. So of course when he did it 100 years ago the man who came in with the technology for him would press a button and a red light bulb would come on and he would press and button and a blue light bulb – so it wasn’t sophisticated enough. And so our efforts were to start to take that and make an attempt to envision what he perhaps was thinking. I think our strength was using piano player to actually play the notes so that the whole performance hall could have the virtuosity of the piano player, so the Luce – the light organ – could be played with color just as Scriabin originally perhaps suggested.
Very cool. I’m realizing as you’re talking to me that I’ve gotten this question from so many candidates about wanting to work in New York, but going to grad school elsewhere. Of course, Brooklyn College is a perfect option. But you’re an example of someone who left New York and then came back. A lot of students are really worried about this idea of leaving a city that you want to work in.
I think it’s essential to have connections in this industry. Work comes from connections. Now, does that mean if you go to school in New York that you will have the best connections? No. I think there’s just different ways to meet people and different ways to chase that. So, who is doing work that one admires? And that’s not to say that professors that aren’t having a New York career aren’t the best professor for you. I don’t know that. But does that mean that you’re spending your summer in Williamstown meeting the Williamstown people? Your inroad could come from that. I don’t think there’s only one way to get connections. And I think the mistake is to assume “Only my professor will know what’s best for me, and they will shape [my future].” We’ve got to sort of flatten the world and think about who and how. Who do I know, and how can we start to network? And what do I have to offer that’s real? Instead of assuming okay here I am right out of undergraduate and why hasn’t Broadway called? Just say, how can I engage and what can I offer them? How can I grow in this field that really needs new talent—that needs new people working for them?
To wrap up, you know URTA works with a lot of early career professionals looking at graduate school, looking at their careers, and moving forward. Do you have wisdom or advice for early career professionals either in lighting or scenic design about what they can do to hone their craft, or how to approach their early steps into graduate school?
I think first of all you’ve got to go to the people you’re most interested in. You’ve got to trust who you’re interested in and chase them down and be there. It’s essential that you’re surrounding yourself with colleagues, peers, and people you want to be like. So that you’ve got people you can sharpen your sword against, fence, figure these problems out with in a way that’s personal. CalArts for me was really exciting because I found a group of peers that I love and admire, and their voices I need still to this day, in my life. I think also having mentors and professors that I thought “Wow, they’re really exciting, they’re doing some of the best work I can think of!”
You have to be smart about debt. There has to be a way to make this affordable. If we’re going to work as theatre makers there is no future of great big cash, so you can’t pretend that [problem] doesn’t exist. Keep the overhead low. Doug Stein, a set designer I studied with after I graduated, said “Stay dangerous.” I like that idea very much. He said keep your overhead as low as possible so that when someone says “Hey, we need a second assistant to come with us to Europe” you don’t have to say “I can’t because I have to pay off debt, or do this for my other job.” How do we stay dangerous? How do we stay nimble? And furthermore to really trust—this is the hard one—to trust one’s own personality. There’s a temptation to try to do what is right, versus who we are. I think grad school for me was a real coming of age, a real chance to pursue, and engage, and find out what I loved and was interested in. That’s really important—that we really, really open our hearts to “What do I actually care about and what do I actually like? And how do I do that?”Posted by Rachel Friedman Posted on 02 Jan